Monday, 15 December 2014

US History Group Roundtable, March 26, 2014

To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of religion, predicted with confidence by social scientists in the 1960s, was greatly exaggerated.  Today, scholars and journalists are asking how a recent upsurge in religious belief and practice relates to standards of tolerance/intolerance, ethnic identity, and political engagement. Literary critic and public intellectual Stanley Fish sensed the growing importance of religion in the wake of the 9/11.  "When Jacques Derrida died," Fish recalled, "I was called by a reporter who wanted to know what would succeed high theory and the triumvirate of race, gender, and class as the center of intellectual energy in the academy. I answered like a shot: religion."* Robert Townsend of the American Historical Association reported on this trend in 2009: "Specialists in religious history recently surpassed all other topical categories in our annual look at AHA members, raising interesting questions about what is attracting fresh interest in the field."

How has the focus on religion informed the study of US history?  What can we learn about the nation and its relationship with the West and the rest of the World by studying the beliefs, practices, and religious institutions of Americans?

On Thursday March 26, 2015 the US History Group at Northumbria and the School of History Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle will be co-sponsoring a roundtable on Religion in American History (Armstrong Building Room 2.50, 3pm - 7:30pm).  Historians and other scholars from the US and the UK will look into the recent surge in American religious history and discuss some of the most fruitful areas of recent research.  The participants lined up to take part include: Uta Balbier (Director and Lecturer in the Institute of North American Studies, King’s College London); Paul Harvey (Professor in History, University of Colorado); Randall Stephens (Reader in American Studies and History, Northumbria University); Sandra Scanlon (Lecturer in American history, UCD Dublin); and Matthew Sutton (Professor, Washington State University, Heidelberg University).  Their expertise encompasses history, politics, diplomacy, religious studies, music, pop culture, and race.

Matt Sutton will be delivering the keynote address for the event, which we be followed by a reception sponsored by Harvard University Press.  Matt will discuss the study of 20th-century conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism, topics central to his recently published book, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014).  

Over at Religion Dispatches/Salon Daniel Silliman interviewed Matt about his research and writingMatt speaks about the role religion has played and still plays in American life.  Here is a brief excerpt:

Daniel Silliman: How significant is apocalypticism in the history of American evangelicalism?

Matt Sutton: The idea that Jesus is coming back soon was a fairly radical and unconventional idea in the 19th century, but by the 21st century it’s the air American Christians breathe. The most recent polls said something like 58 percent of white evangelicals believe Jesus is going to return by 2050. They simply take for granted that there is going to be a Rapture and Jesus is going to come back.

I took those statistics and others like them and moved backwards in time. What I found in my research was that apocalypticism was central to fundamentalists and evangelicals. What made them most distinct, what set them apart from liberal Protestants is not what we’ve traditionally thought. It’s not questions of the virgin birth or how you read the Bible or questions of the nature of the incarnation or the literal resurrection of Jesus or Jesus’s miracles. All those matter, all of those things do set them apart, but they don’t affect how they live their daily lives. The one thing that affects how they live their daily lives is that they believe we are moving towards the End Times, the rise of the Antichrist, towards a great tribulation and a horrific human holocaust. . . .

This is significant because to believe the world is rapidly moving to its end effects how you vote, how you’re going to structure your education, how you understand the economy, how you’re going to treat global events, how you’re going to look at organizations like the United Nations.

Apocalypticism is central to understanding how fundamentalists and then evangelicals acted. . . .*

The Religion in American History roundtable will be open to the public.  Please contact Randall Stephens for details.

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